Manila’s war on drugs is helping to build bridges between China and Philippines

After years of conflict over South China Sea, nations have found common ground fighting spread of methamphetamine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 10:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 10:18pm

Since his ascent to power last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has had two policy priorities. First and foremost is a brutal crackdown on suspected drug dealers, a bloody campaign that has claimed the lives of thousands of individuals.

The second is reviving frayed ties with China, which has been at loggerheads with the Philippines over disputed land features in the South China Sea in recent years. Interestingly, however, Duterte has deftly managed to connect the two policy priorities by welcoming help from Beijing when it comes to his campaign against illegal drugs.

Eager to woo a long-standing US treaty ally, Beijing has offered unprecedented carrots to the new sultan in Manila. Aside from dangling a multibillion-dollar development package, which includes a large railway network in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao, China has offered to assist in the campaign against illegal drugs.

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It is an area of cooperation, which makes perfect sense. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, organised criminal networks in China have been the primary source of methamphetamine, better known as “shabu” in the Philippines.

Between 2015 and 2016, mainland Chinese made up two-thirds of the foreigners incarcerated in the Philippines for drug-related offences; with a further quarter from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

As Duterte warned in a recent speech, “the Philippines today is a client state of the [Chinese] Bamboo triad,” seeking maximum help from the international community. In his view, the country is well on its way to become a narco-state unless he gets all the help he needs from international partners.

As I write in my latest book The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, the Filipino president has sought full-spectrum cooperation with China not only in traditional areas of concern, mainly infrastructure investments and maritime spats, but also in terms of non-traditional security concerns such as drug trafficking.

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In the Filipino leader’s mind, China is not only a giant neighbour that has to be engaged, but also an indispensable partner for national development. In Duterte’s mind, his greatest possible legacy could be infrastructure development and mitigating the proliferation of illegal drugs in the country.

In fact, China has not only offered the largest development help deal, but was also the first country to offer unconditional support to Duterte’s controversial anti-drugs campaign, which has alienated much of the international community.

“China understands and supports the Philippines’ policy under the leadership of President Duterte to fight against drugs, and is willing to proactively cooperate against drugs with the Philippines,” China’s foreign ministry said in 2016.

Earlier this year, at the Universal Periodic Review undertaken by the UN Human Rights Council, Beijing was the only country that stood by Manila, which was condemned by the vast majority of member nations amid a spate of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Ma Zhaoxu, China’s representative to the council, called upon other countries to respect the Philippines “sovereignty” and lauded the “relentless efforts made by the Philippines for the promotion and protection of human rights, and the remarkable achievements it has made.”

During his state visit to China in October 2016, Duterte and President Xi Jinping signed an agreement, which specifically focused on ways to deepen anti-drug cooperation.

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In particular, China offered intelligence sharing on drug syndicates as well as modern equipment for detecting illegal drugs in shipments to the Philippines. In May, the Philippines was able to seize up to US$121 million worth of methamphetamine in illegal shipment thanks to intelligence from Chinese authorities.

China has also funded two major rehabilitation centres in Mindanao. One is planned to be constructed in Sarangani province, worth 350 million Philippine pesos (US$6.9 million) and capable of hosting up to 150 drug rehabilitation patients. A bigger one is planned to be built at an army camp in Prosperidad, Agusan del Sur, at a cost of 700 million Philippine pesos.

China’s support for Duterte’s drug war has forced strategic competitors such as Japan, the European Union, and the United States to step up their help accordingly.

Both Tokyo and Brussels have offered to build state-of-the-art rehabilitation centres in the Philippines, while Washington has offered to provide timely intelligence, training and necessary equipment via the Drug Enforcement Administration. So far, Duterte has warmly welcomed support from traditional partners.

Since the “Philippines is a transshipment of shabu to America,” Duterte claimed in a recent speech, “[it] behoves ... America to work closely with [us].”

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Nonetheless, anti-drug bilateral cooperation is yet to blossom. Given the sheer volume of illegal shipment of drugs from the Chinese mainland, many authorities in the Philippines lament the lack of commensurate cooperation from Beijing. There are also concerns vis-à-vis the quality of drug rehabilitation centres offered by China and the risk of them ending up as white elephant projects.

Others also hope that Beijing will more aggressively regulate the distribution of meth-related chemicals and proactively crackdown on drug syndicates within its jurisdiction. Nonetheless, the Filipino relishes that China has introduced an element of competition among major powers for support of his controversial drug war.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy